What is the future for regional cooperation in Central Europe?

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If you don't know anything about the Visegrad Group and which countries it represents, you can be forgiven. When I asked people in the streets around the radio building here in Prague whether they had heard of Visegrad, almost all gave the same answer: a very firm "No". I asked around fifteen people, and only one, a smartly dressed young man from Slovakia, gave me the precise answer.

"It's a grouping of Central European countries," he said: "Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic."

The Visegrad Group is not one of Europe's better known political blocks. It was set up eleven years ago on the initiative of President Havel and emerged from the euphoria of the period just after the fall of communism, when Mr Havel and many other European politicians felt that a whole new political order in Europe was possible. Visegrad was to be an important focus for common Central European interests representing the goals and concerns of a block of over 60 million Central Europeans. Today, President Havel's assessment of its achievements is upbeat.

"Throughout its existence, this grouping has played an important role in building a new peaceful Europe with a new order, and it has helped in the process of European integration."

But the grouping has never really captured the imagination either of politicians or the public. It has often given the impression of being a talking shop, with little real substance beyond occasional meetings of the four countries' presidents. But the Czech political commentator, Jan Urban, thinks that Mr Havel's positive assessment is not completely out of place:

"I see the best achievement of Visegrad as coming from the field of political culture. We have started to think about our countries as a region. Luckily we all have one goal which is first NATO membership and then European Union membership, and this shifts the focus or attention to real things like infrastructure, especially transportation, economic cooperation, in which we were not very successful. Slowly but steadily the governments needed to coordinate their accession talks. So I think it's a learning process more than anything else."

I can't really think of a single concrete achievement of the Visegrad Group. Are there any?

"I don't think so. This is why I call it a learning process. If, ten years ago, the governments had been more adventurous, they would have been able to fulfill the expectations and to coordinate their accession talks from the very beginning, and that would give the region a much better negotiating position."

So in effect, if the Visegrad Group has worked at all, it is not really as a formal structure, but as a way of giving a name to a process of regional cooperation, that has sometimes blossomed and sometimes stalled. The group faced its toughest test earlier this year, when the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia all boycotted a Visegrad meeting in Hungary after a row with the Hungarian Prime Minister over the post-Second World War expulsion of Germans and Hungarians from Czechoslovakia. Similarly Visegrad only just managed to survive the period when Vaclav Klaus was Czech Prime Minister. Mr Klaus openly opposed the concept of any such political grouping, preferring instead to focus exclusively on economic cooperation. But Visegrad has survived, and at a meeting of Visegrad Presidents a few weeks ago, all four countries asserted that the group did have a future. Polish President, Alexander Kwasniewski:

"We have a good chance to be together as the Visegrad Group in two organizations, the European Union and NATO as well, and I think that is very positive, because we will work as members of the European Union or NATO but we have a long list of regional issues and problems, which it is necessary to solve together. And I see the future of the Visegrad Group of course not so much focused on the European Union and NATO, but on some regional issues I think the prospects for our group are quite bright and this structure can be very useful for all us."

So in effect President Kwasniewski is saying that Visegrad will simply become a regional lobby platform within the European Union. Jan Urban agrees:

"Exactly because our countries have gone through the same experience of the Communist economy, we have the same or very similar economic problems, and this is insufficient investment in the infrastructure most of all, it's the need for agricultural reforms, it's the terrible need to attract foreign investment. I see a large case for a kind of block tactic, even within the European Union."

And if, for example, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland join the Union, but Slovakia has to wait a bit longer, which is quite possible, what will the position be then for Visegrad?

"I think that it's enough to look at the map. If Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland join the European Union, for purely economic reasons it is in their top interest to help Slovakia, not only to get accession as quickly as possible, but also to reform its economy and the political, judicial and legal system to match that of the European Union as quickly as possible, even at the time when Slovakia will be still in accession talks."

The question of who will or will not become a European Union member over the next few years threatens to draw a new dividing line through the continent. Even if the Visegrad Four do all manage to join the EU such a division will not be in their interests, both for trade and political reasons. At a summit in the Latvian capital of Riga, the Polish President Kwasniewski recently came up with an initiative for a new grouping of countries in the region that would include both the Visegrad Four and the countries that are not yet in the front line to join the EU, such as the Baltic States, Bulgaria and Romania. He sees this as a way of avoiding new barriers in Europe.

"My initiative is not against Visegrad cooperation. It is not instead of Visegrad cooperation. It is a concept of how to combine our experiences and how to use our experiences in a new situation, where we will have in our region countries that are members of two organizations, NATO and the European Union, only NATO members, only European Union members, and countries, especially in the Balkan region, waiting for full-fledged membership. So I think that such initiatives, such cooperation can accelerate the processes, which at the end of the day should give a place in NATO or the European Union for all countries of our region."

So far the other Visegrad countries have responded with a degree of caution to Mr Kwasniewski's proposal, but at the recent meeting in the Czech Republic, President Havel did appear to give a clear thumbs up to the principle:

"I think that Mr Kwasniewski's proposal is an important one. Precisely because of our own difficult experiences over the last few decades, I think that we shouldn't forget the other countries that went through similar experiences. Just as we appreciated solidarity from others during our times of need, we should show solidarity with those countries which are have not yet come as far was we have."

So will the Polish initiative work? Jan Urban:

"To be tested, I would say. It's a traditional line of post-89 Polish foreign policy, trying to make sure that especially the Baltic States and Ukraine are not left out as a kind of dark backyard of Europe. That is absolutely understandable."

Just if you look at the geography of Central Europe and the populations of the different countries, Poland is regionally a power. Is there an element maybe of Poland wanting to be a power-broker in the region?

"Poland simply is - by geography, by its population size - a regional power, and its interests are always moving towards larger European integration schemes. There's nothing harmful in it for its neighbours and I think that the only cure to this disparity in size is closer cooperation."

So for the time being we shouldn't rule out Visegrad as a voice in Europe. And it's certainly worth remembering that when the four countries, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, join the EU they will have a combined population larger than that of Britain, France or Italy.